Jamie Bircoll: Finding truth in Spike Lee’s cinematic activism

Tuesday, January 26, 2016 - 3:58pm

As I sat in my seat at the State Theater this weekend, I had the unfortunate experience of seeing the trailer for Michael Moore’s new movie, “Where to Invade Next.” When the trailer finally ended after two-and-a-half minutes of self-aggrandizement, I shook my head and softly muttered under my breath, “God, I hate Michael Moore.”

You can still subscribe to the same ideology as Moore while flatly loathing him, his films or what he stands for. Whatever purpose or original intent Moore has when he concocts his so-called documentaries, the final cuts never seem to show it — whatever points or opinions he happens to raise, they play second fiddle to his own ego inflation.

The most blaring instance of his agenda setting that comes to my mind gets played out in his 2002 film “Bowling for Columbine,” where he “explores” guns and gun culture in America. He asserts that we as a nation are gun obsessed, that war mongering is engrained in our public consciousness.

“That’s an interesting opinion, Mr. Moore. Please provide your evidence.”

Moore goes to a bank in Michigan where they have a special offer: open a specific bank account, get a gun. Moore opens a bank account, and, minutes later, he walks out with a gun. He says this demonstrates the lax standards by which we hand out guns — no waiting period from this bank/apparent arms dealer. Clearly we live in a messed up country.

Except that scene is completely fabricated. Yes, that bank with that deal exists, but it mandatorily institutes background checks and three day waiting periods, per the law. Moore convinced the bank to give him the gun immediately because of “time constraints” with filming, but that caveat obviously didn’t make it into his film. Michael Moore lied, he fixed the rules to meet his agenda so that he could walk out of this bank with a gun held high and declare, “I, Michael Moore, am smarter than the system, and for that I am wiser, even better, than you.”

I don’t appreciate being lied to. And I don’t appreciate Moore flaunting his self-importance, especially because he disguises it under a mask of so-called “truth” that would otherwise inspire social change. And yes it’s possible to view his films as an impetus for discussion, but because it’s a documentary, a genre associated (falsely) with neutrality, people will likely accept it at face value as truth. Spreading false information is dangerous, no matter how good your cause, and empty practices in narcissism are a waste of time.

Which is why viewing “Chi-Raq” last week was so refreshing. This was the first Spike Lee film I had seen, not including the various snippets of “Inside Man” that get replayed on cable, and I knew little about him beyond the following: his film “Do the Right Thing” is considered a masterpiece, he is prone to making provocative statements and he is boycotting the Academy Awards this year.

Here is a film that explores the same grim topic as Moore, guns in America, but explodes with vibrancy, color and emotion. It follows the same premise as the play it’s based on, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, where a group of women withhold sex from bloodthirsty men until they agree to put down their arms. It is, above all else, a satire: in Lee’s world, the withholding of sex enacts global social change and ends gang violence, police brutality, war, etc.

Of course, sex strikes are not the real, achievable solution the film proposes but the mechanism by which Lee delivers his message. Instilled in this comic narrative are incredibly powerful images that are sure to resonate, most notably a wrenching two minute scene during which a grieving mother desperately tries to clean the sidewalk of her daughter’s blood, spilled in a gang-related shooting the night before.

Lee tackles this topic of gun violence (gang-related, police-related, military, etc.) with grace and the occasional challenging comment. His mission is not to preach (though he does, more on that momentarily) but to get the dialogue rolling — he offers no practical solution except to get people talking.

The centerpiece of the film is the rousing eulogy for the aforementioned daughter, delivered by John Cusack’s Father Corridan. In it, Cusack blasts the gangs, the police, the public’s indifference and lack of motivation, racism, all of these core societal issues. It’s supposed to raise questions, to get us thinking. But what struck me the most was not the speech itself: why does Lee have the only substantial white character in a film otherwise occupied by black characters give the most direct condemnation of the American way of thinking? Is it because Cusack is the most visible of the cast? Is it because the real-life priest he’s based on is also white and Lee was staying factual? Or is it because Lee believes white people will only listen to a white man?

I don’t know the answer to this question, nor any question the film proposes. But I read a wealth of information on Lee and the reception of “Chi-Raq,” the criticisms it draws, and I thought on its reflection of America as a whole, which I imagine was Lee’s goal.

The beauty of the film stems from its absurdity. To quote from my favorite graphic novel, “Watchmen”: “He saw the cracks in society … he saw the true face of the twentieth century and chose to become a reflection of it, a parody of it.”  And from the parody of “Chi-Raq”— the hypersexualized women, the hyperviolent men, the frequent breaking of the fourth wall, the music video moments, the outrageous practicality of a sex strike — we find the truth of ourselves. The punchline should be just that: a punch.

That is effective cinematic activism; that grabs and holds the attention. Instead of basing his film on his own self-importance, his self-sacrifice in the name of “truth,” Spike Lee offers us a fantastical but equally salient portrait of America. I imagine had “Chi-Raq” received a larger distribution, and if more people saw it instead of Michael Moore’s latest (or any film of his), the dialogue “Chi-Raq” wants us to have, that the film very literally ends with, might actually occur.